Avatar: The Way Of Water review: a return to Pandora

Still of an aquatic creature in Avatar: The Way Of Water.
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Over a decade after the release of the record-breaking Avatar, James Cameron invites us back to Pandora in Avatar: The Way of Water – here’s our review.

“The Way of Water connects all things,” intoned the solemn voiceover when Avatar: The Way Of Waters trailer was revealed last month. Uttered by one of the Na’vi, the brightly-coloured race of warrior shamans who live in perfect harmony with their home planet of Pandora, it’s a refrain that also adorns the new film’s title and might just as easily apply to the Avatar films themselves.

After all, since its release 12 years ago, 2009’s Avatar has formed the connective tissue for so much of the discussion surrounding blockbuster cinema’s trajectory since then. Its $2.9 billion haul at the box office continues to be the yardstick by which any other franchise film is measured. Then there’s the decade of discussion spawned by Avatar regarding the future of 3D, high frame rates, James Cameron’s relevance as a filmmaker of influence and, as we’ve seen most recently with Black Adam, the economic viability of blockbuster filmmaking.

These are just a few of the narratives that can all be traced back to Avatar and the decade of grand plans that have trailed in its wake.

Whilst Avatar never suffered a backlash as such, reception to the film has noticeably cooled somewhat in the last 12 years. That’s an important factor too: Cameron has claimed that The Way Of Water needs to be one of the highest-grossing films ever released to even turn a profit.

He might just have a shot at it, though. Avatar: The Way Of Water is an upgrade on the first film, with storytelling and characterisation given a necessary boost to create an experience with greater emotional heft than its predecessor. And as for the visual spectacle and action sequences, Cameron has somehow managed to exceed the delights offered by the original film, drawing on past glories to create a captivating and visceral experience that satisfies on a wider range of notes than the original Avatar.

The story, then. We’re reintroduced to Pandora years beyond the events of the first film, with Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri having sent the colonial human invaders packing back to Earth. Since then, they’ve been busy raising a family, a Na’vi brood of assorted youngsters who take centre stage for much of the film’s three hours plus running time.

However, their idyllic existence is shattered when the humans return once more, no longer simply seeking unobtainium, the priceless metal that boasted the silliest name in the galaxy and the MacGuffin around which the first film’s conflict was ostensibly based.

Nope, this time the invaders are seeking nothing less than to colonise Pandora as a replacement Earth (presumably LV426 was taken), with the very survival of humanity presumably at stake, being driven from Pandora by the Na’vi again is no longer an option. For Jake and Neytiri though, they now have a family to protect with neither character still a young, heedless warrior as they once were.

Jake Sully and Neytiri in Avatar: The Way Of Water.

It’s a move straight out the sequel playbook: raise the scale of the conflict whilst somehow personalising it. Still, having adequately set it up, Cameron then shows little interest in the coming invasion, filed away for the many planned sequels. Instead, here he’s far more interested in Jake, Neytiri and their young family, using the backdrop of war to examine the toll that conflict takes on the individual and those that they love.

With the film’s wider plotting still suffering a little from the same simplicity that the first film was criticised for, Cameron wisely leans into this intimacy, imbuing each member of the Sully family with enough self-doubt and inner conflict (not to mention screen time,) to invest you in their fate. He then guides the story into an aquatic setting where, perhaps more than any other filmmaker in the world, he understands how to make the action truly sing. When Avatar: The Way Of Water delivers on that promise in the title, the film shifts up a gear and introduces us to an aquatic Pandora of some majesty.

It’s a clever way too to recreate that breathtaking sense of discovery that was central to the first film’s success, and whilst it’s doubtful a it’s a trick that you can keep pulling off without suffering diminishing returns, it works here thanks to Cameron’s long-standing affinity for the ocean as both an explorer and as a filmmaker.

There are shades of The Abyss in one tense underwater standoff, whilst Cameron draws on imagery from Titanic for another. As an ocean-faring, world-record holding diver himself, he also draws on the beauty and brutality of the natural world, borrowing from the horrific iconography of whaling for one harrowing scene. Indeed, this is a film that only James Cameron could make, and that proves to be true in a spectacular third act which once more reasserts his credentials as one of the finest directors of action.

As a film fan who sometimes gets bored with the sprawling and turgid third act action sequences that seem to be a necessary evil for most superhero films, The Way Of Water reminds us how things should be done. True Lies, Cameron’s last straight-up action flick, may be almost two decades in the director’s rear view mirror but he hasn’t lost a step in the years since.

A Na'Vi and aquatic creature swimming in Avatar: The Way Of Water.

Questions remain, however. One subplot centred around the notion of family felt underpowered, whilst an intriguing narrative thread involving Sigourney Weaver’s Kiri is simply abandoned – presumably left to be picked up in the next film. That’s on top of the invasion backdrop.

There’s obvious reasoning for all of this: at three hours and twelve minutes, the film will already be bottom-numbingly long for many. Still, wasn’t there a way to tie these narrative elements together in a slightly more satisfying way? 

As much as the narrative is an upgrade, those unmoved by the cinematic experience of 2009’s Avatar may well feel the same about this one. Like its predecessor it’s a film that works through the joy of discovery and is certainly one to be enjoyed in the cinema, if at all possible with luscious 3D and a novel use of variable frame rate.

On that note, while this new approach doesn’t quite solve the ongoing high frame rate conundrum, it does show the cinematic potential of a technology that was roundly derided following its use in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy for being hyper-real to the point of being anti-cinema. Some may find it jarring, others will enjoy it, but it certainly seems like a step forward and it will be interesting to see if other filmmakers adopt it in the wake of The Way Of Water.

Writing about this film, even thinking about it, invites broader speculation as to just how we judge a film’s merits. Much like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way Of Water is one of this year’s most arresting cinematic experiences. But will the film age well? Can the foundations that Cameron has built here bear the weight of a rapid-fire volley of sequels? When the film sits on Disney+ alongside a million other movies and its CGI ages, will it still possess the magic that makes it special right now?

None of those questions can be answered, but nor should they be, not now at least. In the here and now, Avatar: The Way Of Water delivers a hit of blockbuster entertainment that packs heart, spectacle and action, pieced together in a riveting fashion that few other studio juggernauts this year can match up to.

It also passes the Martin Scorsese ‘emotional danger’ test, that he rightly accuses so many superhero movies of failing. For James Cameron, the mantra that “the Way of Water connects all things’ rings especially true, as it feels as if he’s pulling from the entirety of a career to make this work – vital really when you consider that he might well never make another film that doesn’t have Avatar in the title. See it on the biggest screen you can, revel in the vivid immediacy of its pleasures and let tomorrow, next month or next year take care of itself.

There’ll probably be another three Avatar movies out by then anyway, and who knows if they’ll be as good as this one?

Avatar: The Way Of Water is in cinemas on 16th December.

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